Sin and the Day of Atonement

It is virtually impossible to understand the literal, prophetic, and symbolic meanings of the Day of Atonement and the special rituals performed on this day without first understanding the concept and meaning of sin.


In past centuries there has been much debate and confusion as to exactly what sin is and is not. Notice how sin is defined in the New Testament:

"Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (1.Jn.3:4 KJV).

All unrighteousness is sin (1.Jn.5:17 KJV).

"Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But the one who has doubts, if he eats, he has been condemned, because what he does is not of faith. . . and all that is not of faith is sin" (Rom.14:22-23 Para.). See also Jms.4:17.

In the New Testament sin is simply defined as the violation of God's law: sin is lawlessness. Sin is any physical or spiritual deviation from God's righteous laws, precepts, and principles that define how people should live their lives before God.

God's Holy Law

The law of God is eternal, empirical, self-regulating and sustaining; God's law does not depend on an outside force to empower its action. The law of God that controls the interaction between God and humanity functions automatically.

Humanity cannot remain neutral to the law of God that is designed to govern relationships between God and people, people and people, and people and their physical environment. People are either in compliance and in harmony with God's law, or they are not.

Any physical or spiritual violation of God's law is considered sin, whereas strict obedience to these laws is considered righteousness.

Upon obedience of the law, the promised benefits are automatically credited to the individual who faithfully practices the law. Upon violation of the law, the assignment of guilt and punishment is automatically assigned to the violator of the law. It is at the point of the assignment of guilt and punishment that there is a great difference between the agreements God made with the Patriarchs and ancient Israel and the agreement he makes with people today.

The Law

In order to clearly understand the Day of Atonement, it is extremely important to understand that there is a great difference between the terms and conditions of the various agreements that God made with different people concerning their salvation. The methods and procedures by which a person could worship and fellowship with God prior to Christ were very different from the methods that exist today.

Under the terms and conditions of the agreements with the Patriarchs and ancient Israel, a person was required to go through the sacrificial system in order to worship and fellowship with God.

Under the agreement with the elect children of God today, each individual stands before God as a righteous son and can go to him anytime they want to fellowship and worship through the office of Jesus Christ, our high priest in heaven.

Under the terms and conditions of the agreements with the Patriarchs and with ancient Israel, the violation of God's law required a physical punishment.

Under the agreement with the elect children of God today, the end result of violating the law of God is eternal (Rom.6:23), because the Savior has come with a new agreement that is eternal.

Those under this new agreement have the spirit of God dwelling within them, which makes it possible for them to remain in a sinless condition. This condition did not exist under the agreements with the Patriarchs or with ancient Israel; therefore, the major difference between the old and new agreements concerns the setting aside of sin through the sacrificial blood of an animal verses the forgiveness of sin by the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ.

Is All Sin The Same?

"For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (Jms.2:10 KJV).

Under the new agreement, any violation of the law is viewed as a violation of every point of the law, because all of the law is the same law for those who come under the sacrificial blood of Christ. However, this was not so for those under the old agreements; all violations of the law were not the same to them; all sins were not atoned for by the same method and all sins did not warrant the same punishment.

Under the agreement with ancient Israel, there were two categories of sin: physical sin and spiritual sin. There was a strong distinction made between the two types of sin and each type had a specific set of rules concerning atonement and punishment.

When reading an English translation of the biblical record it is very difficult to determine the differences between these two categories of sin. The main reason for this difficulty is that there are many different Hebrew words used to define a violation of God's law and its associated atonement process. Most of these Hebrew words are translated into one English word 'sin,' which cannot possibly convey the meaning of the many different Hebrew words that define the violation of God's law.

Another reason for this confusion is that, since the writing of the Bible, the concept of sin has been narrowly interpreted by Bible Scholars as being only a spiritual violation of the Ten Commandments.


The laws concerning physical defilement (i.e., ceremonial/physical impurity) and its covering or removal under the sacrificial system were necessary for two primary purposes:

    1. For the physical protection of people and things that were to come into close contact with God while he was in his spirit-form or spirit-presence.
    2. To make it possible for God in his spirit-form or spirit-presence to dwell within the tabernacle or temple.

The scriptures clearly show that physical and spiritual dimensions of existence can only interact with each other under certain circumstances and conditions that are governed by very strict laws. If the laws that govern these circumstances and conditions are violated in the physical existence, the result of coming into contact with God is the destruction of whatever has violated these laws. Therefore, strict adherence to the law that governs this interaction between the physical and the spiritual had to be maintained in Israel in order to make it possible for God's presence to dwell within the tabernacle or temple.

Physical defilement (ceremonial and physical impurity) prevented a person or a thing from safely coming into close contact with God. Therefore, this defilement had to be canceled, covered, or removed in order for a thing to be used for a holy purpose, or for a person to come into close contact with God for the purpose of fellowship or worship.

The laws concerning physical defilement under the agreement with ancient Israel had nothing to do with spiritual sin; they had to do with maintaining God's presence in Israel and being able to worship and fellowship with him in a formal way.

Conditions of Defilement

There were basically two conditions of physical defilement (physical and ceremonial impurity) under the law of defilement:

    • Things that were inherently in a condition of defilement because of the nature of their existence. This included contact with certain animals, birds, sea creatures, and dead bodies.
    • People and things that became defiled.

Becoming physically defiled could occur in several ways:

    • Accidentally coming into contact with something or someone that is defiled.
    • By intentional and unintentional acts.
    • By natural processes, such as death or illness.

Physical defilement rendered a thing or a person ceremonially and physically impure, which made it impossible to safely come into the presence of God.

The physical dimension of existence is always in a condition of impurity as far as its ability to interact with pure spirit-energy. Because no person or thing is inherently in a condition of ceremonial or physical purity, each must be purified before coming into close contact with the power of God's spirit-presence.

The following two examples of the purification of things and people provide more insight into how purification was accomplished and why it was necessary.

Purification of the Altar

Moses was told to build an altar on which to perform sacrifices. Because this altar was a physical thing and was made by men, it was in a condition of ceremonial and physical impurity. Therefore, it needed to be purified before being used within the tabernacle where God's spirit-presence was to dwell:

"Sacrifice a bull each day as a sin offering to make atonement. Purify the altar by making atonement for it, and anoint it to consecrate it. For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it shall be holy" (Ex.29:36-37).

Seven bulls were to be sacrificed in order to eliminate physical defilement from the altar. Only after this ritual of purification was successfully completed, the altar could be used for its intended purpose. See also Ex.29:10-20; 30:1-10.

Notice also that whoever or whatever touches the altar of sacrifice must be holy (i.e., set apart for holy use).

Purification of Women Leviticus 15:25-30 NIV

"When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean......................... Whosoever

touches them will be unclean . . ." (vs.25-27).

Notice that this condition of impurity can be transferred from one thing to another or from one person to another.

"When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count of seven days, and after that she will be ceremonially clean. On the eight day she must take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the Lord for the uncleanness of her discharge" (vs.28-30).

This condition of physical impurity is considered sin and must be atoned for by the sacrifice of two birds.

Do women commit spiritual sin by having a menstrual cycle? No they do not. Their sin is clearly a natural physical condition that violates the law of purity surrounding the sacrificial system of worship at the tabernacle and temple.

Punishment for Remaining Defiled

"He that touches a dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself the third day, then on the seventh day he shall not be clean. Anyone who touches a dead body, a body of a man who dies, and does not cleanse himself, he shall have defiled the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel, for the water of impurity shall not be sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness shall be still on him" (Num.19:11-13 Para.). See also verse 20.

These scriptures show the extremely serious nature of remaining in an unclean condition within the camp of Israel.

"You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so that they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them" (Lev.15:31 NIV). See also chapters 12; 13; 14.

A major key to understanding the Day of Atonement is to understand that a condition of ceremonial and physical purity had to be maintained in order for God to dwell among the Israelites.

Unintentional And Intentional Sin

Within the category of spiritual sin, there were two basic types of sin which could be atoned for: unintentional sin and intentional sin. These types of sin violated the foundational spiritual laws that govern the interpersonal relationship between one person and another or between God and humans; these sins were violations of God's code of behavior for people.

Unintentional Sin Numbers 15:22-26 NIV

"Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the Lord gave Moses—any of the Lord's commands to you through him, from the day the Lord gave them and continuing through the generations to come—and if this is done unintentionally without the community being aware of it, then the whole community is to offer a young bull for a burnt offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, along with its prescribed grain offering and drink offering and a male goat for a sin offering" (vs.22-24).

Because the nation was to represent God's way of life, if any individual sinned, the sin was laid to the charge of the nation as a whole; therefore, the sin had to be atoned for as if the whole nation had sinned.

"The priest is to make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven, for it was not intentional and they have brought to the Lord for their wrong an offering made by fire and a sin offering. The whole Israelite community and the aliens living among them will be forgiven, because all the people were involved in the unintentional wrong" (vs.25-26).

Unintentional sins were all called sins of ignorance. This type of sin was not premeditated and was done in ignorance:

"And if any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sins ignorantly, when he sins by ignorance before the Lord, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. You shall have one law for him that sins through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourns among them" (Num.15: 27-29 KJV).

Intentional Sin

This type of sin can either be premeditated or unpremeditated. Errors in judgment, plain stupidity, lying, stealing, and etc. can be considered intentional sin.

Leviticus 6:1-7 NIV

"The Lord said to Moses: 'If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do" (vs.1-3).

"When he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering" (vs.4-5).

"And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the Lord, and he will be forgiven [i.e., atoned for] for any of these things he did that made him guilty" (vs.6-7).

These sins are of a spiritual nature and violate the Ten Commandments. The setting aside of these sins was granted through repentance, restitution, and the sacrificial system of atonement.

Whether they were committed accidentally, through ignorance, plain stupidity, errors in judgment, or weakness of the flesh, all physical or spiritual violations of God's law could be atoned for through the sacrificial system under the first agreement with ancient Israel. However, this could only happen if there was no premeditation, malice, or intended rebellion against God. Nevertheless, God did set aside some intentional sins because of his mercy and his promise to forgive those who are honestly repentant. The only exceptions were sins that were considered capital crimes against God or humanity; for these types of sin there was no atonement; there was only punishment.

A Distinction Between Sins

Under the agreement with ancient Israel, a tremendous distinction was made between sins of ignorance, sins concerning the weakness of the flesh, and sins committed in haughty, defiant rebellion against God and his commandments:

"But the soul that does ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproaches the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among the people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him" (Num. 15:30-31 KJV).

Sins that were committed in an attitude of rebellion against God could not be atoned for in order to have the punishment set aside. These violations of God's law were considered capital crimes, and the violators were to be punished by execution.

All of the offenses for which no atonement could be made were either directly or in principle covered under the Ten Commandments, which is the foundation of God's law. Because these offenses were contemptuous, intentional, and premeditated and they struck at the very foundation of God's law (Matt.22:36-40), they constituted rebellion against God's way of life. The following are some of these capital violations of the law:

Murder, adultery, incest, bestiality, sodomy, fornication, rape, perjury, kidnaping, witchcraft, human sacrifice, striking or cursing one's father or mother, blasphemy against God, desecration of the Sabbath, prophesying falsely, idolatry, sacrificing to false gods, and refusing to abide by the decision of the court.

Because the terms and conditions of the new agreement are better than the first agreement with ancient Israel, all sin except for blasphemy against the holy spirit can be forgiven through repentance and the application of the sacrificial blood of Christ.

Becoming Aware of Sin

"When a person is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned. . . and the priest shall make atonement for his sin. . . In this way the priest will make atonement for him for any sins he has committed, and he will be forgiven. . ." (Lev.5:5,13 NIV).

Leviticus 5:1-13 shows that, although people became guilty of sin the moment they committed an act in violation of God's law, they were only obligated to make an offering for atonement when they became aware of their guilt. These are all sins of an unintentional nature, which were performed by accident, through ignorance, or poor judgment, and they could be atoned for because there was no premeditated rebellion intended against God. However, just because a violation of God's law was done unintentionally, by accident, through ignorance, or through poor judgment and was never discovered by the guilty person, it does not mean that the act was dismissed as if it had not happened.

The law of God operates independently of personal awareness. The law of God dictates that, when it is violated, the violator is automatically guilty.

Atonement for unrecognized sins was accomplished by the special rituals of the Day of Atonement through which all types of sins, except capital crimes, were covered, removed or set aside from God's sight.

Three Different Sins

In chapter five of Leviticus, there is a list of three completely different types of sin for which a person had to make atonement. It is important to note that all three are considered violations of God's law, yet in the temple system of worship, each had a different atonement ritual for its expiation.

1. The Witness:

"If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible" (Lev.5:1 NIV).

A person who was in the possession of knowledge (i.e., evidence) had a moral obligation to reveal it, but if he decided to conceal it for whatever reason, he violated the law of God concerning being a witness. This was sin caused by making an error in judgment and had to be atoned for when the person became conscious that he had violated the law concerning being a witness.

2. The Unclean:

"Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean—whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move upon the ground—even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty, he shall also be unclean and guilty. Or if he touches human uncleanness—anything that would make him unclean—even though he is unaware of it, when he learns of it he will be guilty" (Lev.5:2-3 NIV).

Whether a person intentionally or unintentionally touched something unclean or was completely unaware of breaking this law, that person was still ceremonially unclean and guilty of the sin of defilement.

3. An Oath:

"Or if a person thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil—in any matter one might carelessly swear about— even though he is unaware of it, in any case when he learns of it he will be guilty" (Lev.5:4 NIV).

If a person said things carelessly out of foolishness and swore an oath without realizing this is what he had done, he was guilty of sin. Because this act was not premeditated and was done out of foolishness, the sin (i.e., error) was in the category of an unintentional sin.


God to Dwell Among the Israelites

"And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall you make it" (Ex.25:8-9 Para.).

The Morning and Evening Sacrifices

"This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day: two lambs a year old. Offer one in the morning and the other at twilight.

. . For the generations to come this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting before the Lord. There I will meet with you and speak to you; there I will also meet with the Israelites, and the place will be consecrated by my glory. . . Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. . ." (Ex.29:38-46 NIV).

Maintaining a condition of physical purity made it possible for God's presence to dwell within the tabernacle and temple and for the priesthood to safely carry out their duties before God without being killed by the power of his presence.

The Key

The key to the mystery surrounding the reason for the atonement rituals on the Day of Atonement is that it was necessary to maintain a condition of ceremonial, physical, and spiritual purity in order for God to dwell among the Israelites.

God knew that it was impossible for humans to remain in a condition of ceremonial, physical, and spiritual purity for very long, because the entire physical existence is contaminated with physical defilement and humans lack the character to continually obey his physical and spiritual laws. Therefore, he showed them the laws and methods by which they could accomplish purification and have their physical and spiritual sins set aside. Thereby, he provided them with protection from the power of his spirit-presence while he dwelled among them.

The Accumulation of Sin

Sacrifices had to be made daily for the priesthood, the nation as a whole, and the tabernacle and temple in order to remove sin (i.e., physical and spiritual defilement). Moreover, sacrifices could also be made on an individual basis to remove sin. However, even with the daily sacrifices for individual and collective sin, defilement and sin continued to accumulate and needed to be removed in order for God to continue to dwell among the Israelites.

The removal of the accumulated sin from the priesthood, the nation of Israel, and the tabernacle was accomplished once a year through the sacrificial system on the Day of Atonement.

Maintaining a condition of purity made it possible for God's presence to dwell within the tabernacle and temple and for the priesthood to safely carry out their duties before God without being killed by the power of his presence.

No Forgiveness for Sin

Although the sacrifices for sin under the sacrificial system did accomplish the purpose of placing individuals and the nation into harmony with God so that he could dwell among them and commune with them, these sins were never totally forgiven.

Under the first agreement with ancient Israel, the sacrifice for physical sin (defilement/impurity) and spiritual sin (violation of moral law) could not permanently remove sin (the violation of God's law); they could only cover the sin, set it aside, and hide it away from God's view for a short time.

Looking to the Future

The sacrificial system with its attending priesthood was prophetic of the time when Jesus Christ would be sent to be the final atonement for sin.

By B. L. Cocherell b5w61